1993 / 2005
fter Kirsty MacColl (known to most, if at all, as the voice from the Pogues’ “Fairytale Of New York”) got dropped from Virgin and divorced producer Steve Lillywhite, she finished Titanic Days and swore she would not make another album until she could make a happier one than this. It took six years.
MacColl and her collaborator Mark E. Nevin, who was going through his own divorce at the time, created something that’s not amenable to easy reduction, though. There are songs here of regret and loss, yes—“Don’t Go Home” in particular is just heart-wrenching in its lambent drift, even the title reduced to a naked plea—but there is also courage and wit and ambiguity and all the other messy signs of life fiercely lived. Even the second disc included here holds up surprisingly well, collecting the b-sides from various singles of the period and a few unreleased tracks Nevin and MacColl worked on; although five different mixes of “Angel” will be a bit much for most, most of that material is top notch, and it’s hard not to wish tracks as excellent as the emotionally complex “Dear John” and the driving live version of “Free World” had received more exposure. Of course, given MacColl’s profile the same could be said about the album proper.
The real sadness surrounding ZTT’s excellent reissue of Titanic Days is that MacColl isn’t around to appreciate it. After finally making 2000’s fine Tropical Brainstorm, MacColl was killed on vacation when a motorboat illegally cruising through a swimmer-only area struck her. In some ways it’s hard to forget that as you listen to this album, particularly when she sings “Kiss me quick in case I die / Before my birthday” on the lovely, lovelorn “Soho Square,” but even in context this is a vital, living document of a seriously underrated singer and songwriter.
The album opens with the relatively upbeat whirl of “You Know It’s You” and the string-led “Soho Square” but when the beautiful “Angel” starts, all pizzicato strings and quasi-baggy drum loop, MacColl sounding meditative amidst the music, it’s clear that the only common sonic denominator here will be a high level of quality. There are songs of unrequited love, songs of rejection (from both sides), songs about fear and death and pain and loss and happiness and acceptance. About a life full of change and how simultaneously wonderful and terrifying that can be.
The title track is the best vehicle here for MacColl’s wonder of a voice, beautifully textured without ever succumbing to rasp or gravel; it ebbs away in a peaceful coda leading into “Don’t Go Home”s desperate calm, but is followed up by the raucous pub stomp of “Big Boy On A Saturday Night” where MacColl manages to, with one “My oh my,” anticipate everything Neko Case does on the New Pornographers’ “Letter To An Occupant” (although not as dramatically).
By the time Titanic Days ends with the painfully self-effacing “Tomorrow Never Comes” (“You could do it again / But I just don’t deserve it”), a full gamut of experience and sentiment has been run, albeit with consistently great, catchy songwriting. It’s hard to say much more about Titanic Days other than just to urge that fans of pop give it a try; this is music that frustrates and confounds the critic, because of how much the kind of quick surface description a record review allows fails it. It is the sort of album that you quickly find yourself thankful for, and it deserves every iota of extra attention this reissue brings it.